• Wed, Feb 13 2013

Live Near Sea Level? You Might Be Fatter Than Your Friends In The Mountains

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Well, this is totally weird. A new study says that people living closer to sea level are four to five times more likely to be obese than those living at higher altitudes.

Using data for more than 400,000 people living the US, including a 2011 telephone research survey, researchers looked at BMIs based on location.

To examine obesity rates at different altitudes, the researchers combined information from several databases, including a telephone health survey of 422,603 Americans from 2011. They had information from 236 people who lived at the highest altitude (about 9,800 feet above sea level), all of whom also lived in Colorado.

The researchers also had information on 322,681 people who lived in the lowest altitude range (about 1,600 ft) above sea level. Researchers took into account other factors that could influence the results, and they found that people living at the lowest altitudes had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 26.6. People who lived in the highest altitude range had an average BMI of 24.2.  The study’s author, Dr. Jameson Voss, said:

I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect… I wasn’t expecting such a consistent pattern as what was emerging.

Voss also found a drop in the risk of a person being obese for every 660 ft increase in elevation.But why, exactly, does this data show that you’re likely thinner if you live at a higher altitude? One possible explanation is that the change in elevation can affect mood, appetite, and metabolism. Another researcher, Cynthia Beall, (not involved with this particular study) said that people who go on vacation to places at high altitudes commonly burn more calories during their first few weeks.

While the validity of this data seems pretty clear, I wonder that researchers didn’t try to find a larger sample of people living at high altitudes, say, in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona….Colorado is consistently ranked among the healthiest states, so it makes sense that people there would tend to smoke less, eat healthier, and exercise more, as researchers say the subjects reported they did. I’d be interested to if see this data stayed the same when looking at people in less affluent states or areas.

Researchers said they weren’t able to control for how long someone lived in a particular location, although they did say that people living at higher altitudes tended to retire at lower altitudes. Ultimately, they weren’t able to conclude that living at a higher elevation for any length of time definitively prevented people from being obese.

Consequently, Dr. Voss says this information isn’t a cause to up and move to the mountains if you’re overweight. But researchers think the results of this study could be an added piece to the puzzle of the American obesity problem.

Photo via Flickr user Gastev

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